“We didn’t organize this march just to lift our voices; we came to make change.”
– Chicago youth Kaleb Autumn speaking at a Reclaim MLK rally January, 2015
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“When Black people get free, everybody gets free. This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black lives matter.”
– Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter
“This is not the civil rights movement; this is an oppressed peoples’ movement.”
– Tory Russell, Hands Up United
The period since the murder of Michael Brown has witnessed the most massive mobilization of African American youth in decades. While these nationwide uprisings have inspired optimism in social justice circles, such large-scale resistance presents incredible complexity as well. During periods of such political upsurge, ideas ferment, contest, develop and, in the best case scenario, lead to the consolidation of a social force that moves the process to a higher stage. However, such an evolution is not inevitable. At least as frequently, such processes get hijacked and political energy drifts down dead ends or takes detours into menial reforms. For the moment, the question looms: what direction will this new wave of mass activism take?
Mainstream media and political moderates have been eager to punt quick fix, technicist courses of action to resolve questions they define as policing problems. Among the first of these was the cry for police body cams in the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Across the country, political groups like the NAACP as well as dozens of police chiefs promoted the notion that videographic evidence could provide an insurance policy against a repeat of the Michael Brown episode. Soon thereafter, however, the failure to secure an indictment in the Eric Garner case largely put aside the belief that capturing it all on camera would turn the tide. Then came the discourse around “special prosecutors,” the argument that standing District Attorneys should be replaced with temporary substitutes in cases involving potential charging of police. This “solution” acknowledged the bias of most reigning DAs, but overlooked the reality that nearly all lawyers have succumbed to the law and order mantra. Getting different results requires more than changes in personnel. Perhaps author Naomi Murakawa has best captured the shortcomings of such tecnhicist approaches: “What is so disturbing … is they are taking #BlackLivesMatter and transforming it into legalistic nitpicking and calls for fine-grained evidence.”
Mainstream media and political moderates have been eager to punt quick fix, technicist courses of action to resolve questions they define as policing problems.
Apart from these quick fixes, a range of policies directed at reforming the police have emerged – racial sensitivity training programs, residential requirements, civilian review boards – a gamut of options often grouped under the heading of “community policing.” While these represent important steps toward accountability and offer more chance of substantive change than cameras or special prosecutors, as long as the focus remains solely on policing not much will change. A genuine transformation demands recognition that the political system has over-empowered and over-resourced police and more broadly, criminal justice and corrections, in the quest to address deep-rooted social problems.
The key issue in painting on a larger canvas is that political leaders have opted to fight wars on drugs and immigrants rather than attacking poverty and inequality, along with race and gender oppression. In short, they have chosen to fight the wrong wars. As scholar R.D.G. Kelley has put it, “What we are dealing with is nothing less than permanent war waged by the state and its privatized allies on a mostly poor and marginalized Black and Brown working-class.”
Lessons of History
So how can the current uprisings develop into a social movement that avoids the pitfalls depicted by Murakawa and advance the race and class agendas implied by Kelley’s framing? Obviously, there is no simple answer. One source of inspiration lies in an examination of other recent mass movements. Many observers have drawn comparisons between the current uprisings and the Occupy Movement. While Occupy captured the popular imagination and forever etched the notion of the 99% and the 1% into mass consciousness, ultimately, its energy dissipated, largely because it failed to develop an effective organizational structure and did not bring a critical mass of people of color or the working class into its ranks. While it spoke on behalf of the 99%, it actually represented only a small, relatively privileged layer of that 99%.
A genuine transformation demands recognition that the political system has over-empowered and over-resourced police and more broadly, criminal justice and corrections, in the quest to address deep-rooted social problems.
While some comparisons with Occupy may be useful, perhaps two other contemporary movements, both of which have remained largely off the media radar, offer more relevant lessons. The first would be the immigrants’ rights movement. Ultimately led by the DREAMers and their not-so-distant cousins, the Dream Defenders, the inspiration of this movement has come from those thousands of undocumented youth who stepped forward, identified their status, and used their immense moral authority to challenge the system to prosecute them. They also brought together a useful combination of legislators and legislation-oriented action such as mobilizing around the DREAM Act. But they complemented work in legal circles with civil disobedience, building occupations, marches and campaigns to stop detention center construction and halt deportations. In addition, the incarcerated wing of the movement carried out a series of hunger strikes in several immigration detention centers bringing pressure from yet another quarter. The DREAMers have succeeded in building a broad spectrum of alliances, especially in faith-based social justice circles. They have achieved meaningful short-term successes, such as deferred action for youth, and the recent changes in Federal immigration policy initiated by President Obama which grant a deportation reprieve to nearly five million people. At the same time, they have continued to mobilize for greater change to immigration policy and in other areas of particular relevance issues for immigrants.
The Climate Justice movement represents another social force which has shown staying power and a propensity to extend both its political scope and constituency. Cast in the early days as white middle class “tree huggers,” climate justice activists, with quite a decentralized structure, have honed their analysis to place the role and challenges faced by people of color at the center of their movement.
The DREAMers have succeeded in building a broad spectrum of alliances, especially in faith-based social justice circles.
In North America, this has meant building on the actions taken by First Nations and indigenous groups, such as those in Canada who have been active in opposing the extraction of tar sands oil. This opposition to tar sands has often taken the form of lawsuits opposing extraction near indigenous peoples’ territory. In British Columbia, resistance also included a 2010 resolution signed by 61 First Nations opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
In the US, indigenous groups have been prominent in opposing fracking. In May of last year, hundreds of people from a variety of tribes joined a demonstration in Sacramento called by Californians Against Fracking. The event opened with a prayer and ceremony led by Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe which proclaimed: “This world was created in the most perfect functioning way…but now so much destruction and toxic waste…for mega money for a few. We pray that our words will be heard and the August Fire and Water Ceremony be good in sending our prayers up the Creator!”
While popular mobilization and media coverage largely remain focused on policing issues, Ferguson Action’s “Our Vision for a New America,” embodies a far more transformative perspective.
In addition, the presence of First Nations and indigenous North Americans was a key element in the 2014 march of 400,000 people at the UN Climate Summit in New York. Activists from the global South and legions of indigenous folk from North America took their place at the front of the march, making a powerful statement linking climate justice to land rights.
Apart from becoming more inclusive in their organizing, climate justice activists have also escalated their demands from narrow, technicist measures like recycling and promoting solar power, to defending the survival of the global poor against the onslaught of corporate power.
Seeds of the Future
A number of forces in the present uprisings have shown some of the strengths of the immigrants’ rights and climate justice folks. While focusing primarily on policing, the We Charge Genocide group that emerged largely from Chicago has hit at the heart of key policing issues rather than tinkering with day-to-day policy. Claiming roots as a “vehicle for needed organizing and social transformation,” they have focused on empowering youth voices and developing the capacity to “police the police.” Their most prominent action, presenting their report, Police Violence Against Youth of Color, to the United Nations in Geneva last year, has highlighted the systemic nature of the problems faced by working class African American communities. Their aim of finding “alternatives to policing” squares with an agenda of re-directing resources and political power from law enforcement.
“Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”
Other explicit and comprehensive programs for change have emerged from organizations growing out of Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. While popular mobilization and media coverage largely remain focused on policing issues, Ferguson Action’s “Our Vision for a New America,” embodies a far more transformative perspective. Proclaiming support for “Justice for Michael Brown,” the document also situates policing problems in the broader socio-economic context, calling for full employment, decent housing, and an “end to mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex.” Ferguson Action complements their overall goals with a specific set of national demands focused more specifically on policing. But even here, Ferguson Action avoids quick fix approaches, urging for the “demilitarization of local law enforcement across the country,” and a congressional hearing directed at the “criminalization of communities of color.” In many ways, the tone and perspective of Ferguson Action’s vision echo the Ten Point Program of the Black Panther Party half a century ago.
Another version of a national orientation has been the campaign Black Lives Matter. While this slogan first surfaced at the initiation of queer Black women in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, Black Lives Matter became both a national banner and an organized force in the wake of the Ferguson events. This phrase has likely gained more profile and grassroots popularity than anything since the “Black Power” cries of the 1960s. Their primary aim has been to broaden “the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.”
As one of its co-founders, Alicia Garza put it, “Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”
In a society where profile and branding pervade, social movements face the challenge of making use of the technology and its potentials without internalizing corporatist values and methods of operations.
While much of the effort of Ferguson Action has gone into building an organization and a core of local activists, Black Lives Matter’s focus has been action, in their terms, “taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets.” Their program, like that of Ferguson groupings, argues for a fundamental redistribution of economic powerwhich for them means “a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools.”
In the months to come, those who have been involved in Ferguson Action, Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United and other local and national efforts will face the test of making the transition from responding to crisis to building a sustainable movement which counteracts police violence, but also makes the connections between cases like Mike Brown and Eric Garner and systemic issues like unemployment, increasing poverty and inequality, institutionalized racism and mass incarceration.
In addition to facing these issues of political orientation, other key questions loom. A first will be how such efforts draw on the historical lessons of cadre style organizations like the Black Panthers while continuing to develop the political potential of more decentralized, network-style formations making extensive use of social media. Second, in the long term, high media profile may bring pressures which could dilute the centrality of African American youth as a driving force. Alicia Garza has already alluded to such processes in the attempts to water down Black Lives Matter into “All Lives Matter.”
A harsh reality is that successful social justice activism and activists attract funders and seasoned political operatives who often, sometimes even with good intentions, use their power and influence to curb the militancy of people on the ground and channel it into sterile electoral processes, the quest for foundation grants or career paths for charismatic individuals. In a society where profile and branding pervade, social movements face the challenge of making use of the technology and its potentials without internalizing corporatist values and methods of operations.
Despite such challenges, the potential now exists for galvanizing a critical mass of people on the ground who will not be content with tweaking the existing frameworks, but will push forward for systemic change.